Thursday, September 30, 2021

The Curious Case of the Too-Talented Artist

Robert Longo was once an art world rockstar. Alongside the likes of Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and David Salle, he became a "household" (ha! - not in 'Murca!) name. 

Above: This enormous, insanely destructive-looking wave drawing in charcoal dominates the room - it's a composite from photos, so it couldn't exist in nature. For Longo it's both an ominous nod to climate change and an homage to his lifelong love of surfing off of eastern Long Island. It's pretty intimidating to stand next to it in person. Sorry the pictures have glare and reflections in them (the red rectangle is an exit sign on the opposite wall); museums and galleries generally don't display charcoals any way other than under glass.

Longo was probably the most collected member of the "Pictures" generation, a group of young artists in the late 1970s  and early 1980s known for appropriating (and subverting) imagery from popular media. Many were photographers, but for Longo, a super-skilled draftsman, it was about forging new ways forward for representational painting, which had loudly been declared "dead" by influential theorists. 

Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art had spent the preceding decade shaking the pictorial tradition to its foundations, and that's when minimalism and conceptualism took the floor.

Yet Longo; unlike most of the other Pictures artists, was committed to - and hugely gifted at - using the traditional tools of art for representational imagery. He was and is capable of a stunning hyperrealism, and cites as major influences Rembrandt and Caravaggio. And despite the noise, the early '80s art world was buying.

Robot hand and closeup (2020-2021). Yes, this is in charcoal (as always, click for larger images).
When the backlash came, financial success put a very visible target on his back. Longo "got blamed for the '80s," he recently told Long Island Newsday. He was one of the best-selling artists at the very moment the "art market" as we know it was born: the cocaine-fueled, financially flush Reagan years, when everything began to serve the the interest of profit. As a highly valuable commodity to begin with, art slid easily into bed with business, spawning a new era in which seemingly facile, willfully provocative, or patently pleasing art could be made seemingly just to make millions (Schnabel, Hirst, Koons).

Native American Headdress (2020-2021) - below: detail.

Did I mention this is in charcoal?

So, basically Longo ran away. His peers reacted by making less-marketable work ever-more grotesque (Sherman, Levine),  aggressive (Salle), explicit (Kruger), and acridly critical of the mushrooming culture of capitalism and the increasing hollowness of the American dream. Instead, Longo hid in Paris, where he started all over building a new career in Europe. Along the way, he dropped out, "got lost for a while," raised three children and "missed the '90s" he says, though he used his time away from the art world to explore filmmaking and in fact directed Keanu Reeves in the highly successful film Johnny Mnemonic (1995).

When the urge to make art the old fashioned way came again, the only thing that came to hand was s "a bunch of shitty old charcoals," in his words, which he hated but couldn't put down. He started thinking about the fact that he was going all in on hand-crafting ever-more exquisitely tight pictures; yes, they're influenced by cinema and commercial photography, but he makes them using basically what cavemen used at the very birth of painting: dust from burnt sticks and ash. He kept going.

Last week, I happened to visit "History of the Present," Longo's extensive one-man show of vey recent work, up now at Guild Hall, a beautiful museum gallery space in East Hampton, NY.  Like everyone else who sees it, at first I thought I was looking at photographs.

Now, to me, massive skill and striking design are impressive, but they're not art - they are about technique,  and as such they are vehicles for art; it took Longo's own explanation of the show for me to see the art in these obviously beautiful hyperreal drawings. So in fact, I'm guilty of the very thing his latest work is designed to counter: our 21st century habit of assuming we have neither the time nor much of a need for sustained and careful looking and thinking.

Fallen bird's wing (2020-2021)

"We live in this world of an incredible image storm," he's said. "How to you get people to look at things more carefully? People look at my drawings and say, 'Oh, they're photographs,' and someone says, 'They're not photographs they're drawings',,,, that gets people to stop and look closer. It's a way to get people to look harder, more in depth.... I'm trying to create images that are more real than real. I've taken it to such an incredibly refined level." So much for technique. On to the art.

These are charged images of America's present. "The Agency of Faith," one of the two large galleries of his show. As Longo points out, a triangle of "American sin" can be traced between three of its potent images: a George Floyd protester, a cotton field, and a cropped image of an American Indian headdress.

"But at the same time, the drawing of the George Floyd protester is quite, I think, liberating," Longo said in an interview. "The translucence of the flag reflects the fragility of democracy. At the same time, the person carrying it is somewhat triumphant. Meanwhile, the world behind him burns."

George Floyd Protestor (2020-2021)

Although I didn't get it first, there's really no "hidden meaning," nothing overly complex or theoretical needing extensive wall text here (as in conceptualism) that someone drawn in by the enchantment and glamour of Longo's incredible skill wouldn't be able to see for herself. Context is all; as the wall plaque says, "A quiet wing of a fallen bird evinces vulnerability. Yet once the viewer encounters a drawing depicting a field of cotton alongside a drawing of a closely cropped Naiver American headdress, the seeming innocuousness of the natural imagery begins to unravel to expose a more provocative narrative."

This is art that requires thoughtful engagement, slowing down and "looking harder, more in depth." And while it isn't the kind of art dominating Artforum or the auction houses in London or New York at the moment, there is surely triumph enough in the way Longo's charcoal chiaroscuro "activates the power of beauty," as the wall text says, "seducing the viewer into a state of, if not unadulterated optimism, renewed faith in our agency to create possibilities for our future." And likewise there is triumph in Longo's return to making relevant art worthy of the talent he wields so well.

Thursday, September 2, 2021

"Abstracting the Seacoast" at Discover Portsmouth

Photo Credit: UNH

“Abstracting the Seacoast” opens October 1, 2021 at the Discover Portsmouth Center (10 Middle St., Portsmouth NH). It's a collaborative exhibition, with Barbara Adams, Tom Glover, Brian Chu, Dustan Knight and Peter Cady, and the show will be on display through November 19th.

Given its beautiful scenery, it makes sense that the Seacoast regularly celebrates beautiful landscape and seascape work by an unusually rich assortment of top-notch representational and plein air painters. Less often, however, do we see gathered in one place the work of painters who approach the region's landscape through the lens of abstraction. This show aims to remedy this imbalance. The following is an excerpt from the essay I wrote for the exhibition's catalogue.

An artist in the landscape asking, How shall I paint what I see? is doing something different from the artist asking, How shall I paint what I notice when I look? 

The difference involves a subtle but significant shift of attention, often with results closer to transformation than transcription. Neither stance is superior, just different: Both artists must be active observers of what’s there as well as alert to personal, felt response, and both must be masters of technique (defined as getting paint to do what one wants). Yet, reframing the question of How do I paint the landscape? can work in surprising ways.

Paintings such as those in “Abstracting the Seacoast” invoke fresh revelations of the familiar. Abstraction invites artist and viewer to take a step back from the observed and explore the space that opens up between painter and painted, seer and seen. Used as a verb, to abstract is to take away from, to draw off or remove, as in “to abstract water from the Piscataqua River in the form of a tidal stream” or, as in alchemy, to “abstract the essential elements” from base matter. Artists painting abstractly often seek an essence, an “inner necessity” (as Kandinsky called it), that can serve as the animating force of a painting when inexpressive, purely descriptive details are given a lower priority.

The five artists in this exhibition bypass literal rendering with intuitive responses, imaginative ideas, freely adapted rules, and at times, reinvented materials. Though the methods are non-traditional, the themes and motifs are well-known, even iconic – the red brick and white clapboard buildings of downtown Portsmouth, the celebrated waterfront with its busy docks and spindly piers, the Piscataqua’s islands, coves, salt-water marshes and granite-ledged back channels, the distinctive bridges, mills, and streets of the NH Seacoast.

The methodology is apparent in the paintings of several artists in the group who challenged themselves to re-imagine the immediately recognizable tugboats of Moran Towing Corp. (one of the oldest companies in America). Barbara Stevens Adams tosses conventional representation overboard and allows the tugs to morph into bright reconstructions of colorful energy, part cubist, part kaleidoscopic. Peter Cady’s interpretation (“Engine in a Hull,”), sighting up along a Moran tug’s hull from a very close distance and an unusually low angle, foregrounds a muscular geometry wonderfully expressive of the stout bulk of these serviceable workboats. For a totally different perspective, Tom Glover used aerial photos of the waterfront to capture novel views of the boats that he renders in ravishing, saturated color combinations and painterly improvisations enlivened by the play of shadows and light.

In other works on display here, Glover collages Seacoast ephemera, such as topographical and maritime maps, into paintings that circumvent boundaries which the materials of painting traditionally impose. On that front, Dusty Knight’s intuitive canvases record a raw, gestural energy that nonetheless pulls in actual bits and pieces of organic and inorganic material from the tidal channels and marshes she paints from memory – souvenirs, perhaps, from the material world from which her spirited transcriptions of experience take flight. Brian Chu’s cityscapes, as in all these artists’ works, take form within the liminal space between artist and canvas, where eye, mind, and imagination, or “sensuality and issue-solving,” as he calls it, have equal seats at the table.

These artists remind us that the world we think we know is what we make it: that even with iconography as an anchor, perception, artistic or otherwise, remains a subjective act, and therefore fair game for the mind and imagination as well as the eye.